The Land of Promise and the Year of Jubilee

Leviticus 25, preached by Melissa Harl on January 17, 2021

This year our congregation is devoting considerable time to study, to conversation, and to prayerful self-scrutiny with regard to the consequences of our presence on land that was taken from the Indigenous Dakota people. Along with the rest of the European-American settlers in Minnesota, our forebears obtained the land on which our beautiful building sits through devices of deceit, trickery, and violent dispossession. Despite the many efforts to extinguish the presence of the Dakota from our state—a story too horrible and yet too well known for me to recount here—our Indigenous neighbors still live among us to this day. The harm done their communities, their traditions, and their ways of life results from the terrible violence and arrogance involved in their dispossession; but through resilience and determination, the Anishinabe and Dakota still live beside us, here in Minnesota.

It has now become customary for people like us, we who strive to live in closer conformity to our values, to acknowledge at public meetings that we live, we work, and we worship in the traditional and present-day homelands of the Ashininabe and Dakota nations. But—are such statements any sort of sufficient response to the harm we have done collectively, and still perpetuate, collectively? Our Indigenous neighbors look to us, watching to see whether we who profess a progressive Christian identity will choose to offer more than mere lip-service and bare acknowledgement of the enormous debt we and our fellow settler communities owe the dispossessed. It is my personal hope and prayer that we will act on our values in deeply meaningful ways.

Our claims of Christian identity, as we consider our place here in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, in the neighborhood we call St. Anthony Falls, require coming to terms with our tradition’s biblical and theological heritage. Scripture’s symbolism of the Land of Promise—the fertile and welcoming land that God was said to have set aside for the Israelite invaders of Canaan—featured prominently in the imagination of the Protestant dissenters who settled New England starting four centuries ago. These are the people who founded the networks of Congregational communities of which this church, our church, became a part. One hundred and seventy years ago, twelve intrepid descendants of those Puritan ancestors arrived from Massachusetts and Connecticut. They were sent west by the Home Missionary Society and landed at b’dote—sacred meeting place of the Dakota, the gathering of the rivers about which our church has heard in recent weeks.

In that same year, 1851, both our church and the neighboring University of Minnesota were founded as key elements of the project of Making Minnesota White. Settlement by a suitable number of White males, combined with the accompanying dispossession of the Indigenous inhabitants, is what was needed to make this territory deserving of statehood. It was a goal fiercely sought and violently achieved. The connection between church and campus was quite strong for many years, and remains in some form still today. Indeed, for its first several years, the First Congregational Church of St. Anthony, as we were then called, paid the University a weekly rental of $1.00 to use one of its classrooms for candlelit worship services. Both university and church stand today on Dakota homeland—land taken away, left unredeemed.

Our systems of education—whether that be in school or on Sunday mornings—taught us that the Northwestern frontier was God’s updated version of the land of promise and plenty that was offered in covenant to the wandering Israelites—provided that they would first succeed in the sacred duty of dispossessing and slaughtering the country’s original inhabitants, the Canaanites, in holy war. The message of the Bible can surely be in turns inspiring, then disquieting. The biblical narrative of Exodus and Conquest has provided powerful models for movements of liberation for the enslaved and oppressed, but also for the violent displacement of indigenous peoples.

The Rev. Naim Ateek is an Arab Palestinian Christian theologian, and thus he is in some sense the modern version of the conquered and displaced Canaanite. Ateek points out that Hebrew words for “land” occur more than 1,500 times in the Jewish Scriptures, and that more than one hundred of those occurrences refer to the land as given or promised to the Israelite people. The Pentateuch or Torah in particular offers a vividly hostile portrait of the indigenous peoples of Canaan. As Ateek says, “Every time they are mentioned, the language is very hostile. They are supposed to be displaced or destroyed. There is no room for them in the land among the chosen people of God to whom the land was promised.” To be sure, at times, the prophets of Israel who addressed the Babylonian exile, and return to that land after chastisement, set a different tone. Jeremiah and Ezekiel exhort the people “to share the land with those who are living in it.” Did they learn their lesson?

Parallels to the biblical stories of Exodus and Conquest were eagerly drawn upon to suggest the convenient notion that Minnesota was part of a newly promised and newly given land, offered to God’s faithful people of the New Covenant. One major difference was this: those ancient people of the Bible did not pretend that Canaan was an empty country devoid of people, culture, and civilization. When Minnesota and this entire continent became a target for new conquest and dispossession, no such acknowledgement of the worthiness of the vanquished peoples was offered—quite the contrary. As Robert Frost wrote in his poem “The Gift Outright,”

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people.

 . . .

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,

Such as she was, such as she would become.

Dakota author and activist Waziyatawin, in her powerful and searing book What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, explains that,

The hunger for Indigenous lands by the swelling American population cannot be overstated. . . . By the mid-nineteenth century, when Whites began flooding into what was claimed by them as Northwest Territory, they had already established a pattern of aggression and violence. Indian traders [she goes on to stress] were the advance guard for an exploitative process that would not end until settler society had stripped Indigenous Peoples of nearly everything we held dear. . . . Whites who came to Minnesota had no intention of living side by side with either Dakota or Anishinabe Peoples; rather they arrived believing that the “Indian problem” would be dispelled in short order. . . . While many Americans (she concludes) tend to look fondly on the work of missionaries and do-gooders claiming to bring lightness to the corners of the world where all the dark-skinned people dwell, this is not how Indigenous Peoples usually perceive their efforts. We identify these practices not only as a form of fanatical religious imperialism, but also as a form of ethnocide.

I requested that Frost’s poem The Gift Outright and its powerful rebuke in Heid Erdrich’s response, The Theft Outright, be read this morning for two reasons. One reason is to juxtapose two evident facts: on one side, the pride and blindness of the colonial settler tradition, so clearly manifested by Frost, who is perhaps the quintessential poet of New England; in contrast, we hear Erdrich’s sharp unveiling of Frost’s confident erasure of the Indigenous peoples whose land he dismisses as unstoried, artless, and unenhanced. Erdrich, who is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Anishinabe, writes:

We were the land’s before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.

Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

. . .

The land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions,

still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced.

Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.

The second reason I ask us to listen and respond to Frost and Erdrich is much more personal. I have become more fully aware in the last few years of my own complicity in the process of theft, fatal neglect, dispossession, and genocidal outcomes. The witness of Standing Rock and the Water Protectors has brought home with great clarity the terrible pain wreaked—directly and indirectly—by not just the ancestral founders of First Church, but by my own family as well. On my father’s side of the family, my ancestors were pushed out of France in 1685, when Protestantism was no longer tolerated: the watchword was convert to Catholicism or leave. So, the Sellew family left Gascony for England, where they were soon to join up with Congregational dissenters in helping to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony as an outpost of what they called true religion. Indeed, one of the reasons I was drawn to this congregation was that family heritage. I admit that I found the connection to my colonial ancestors something of a romantic touch. I feel that way no longer. Not at all.

A prominent aspect of my family’s New England heritage is that the poet Robert Frost was my grandmother’s first cousin. Though I never met the man, and my father had only fleeting and dim memories of him, I confess to having life-long pride in this connection with the poet— he very poet who erases my Indigenous neighbors—erases them through his verse.  When I first read Erdrich’s powerful take-down of my cousin’s celebration of America’s nation building through conquest and dispossession, I felt embarrassment, I felt shame. But I need to share those feelings with you today, my friends, to help bring home that for me, at least, and I hope for all of us, it’s important that we make no attempt to consign the evils done for our benefit in the past, and still being done today, to some silent place of shame and secrecy. We need to face our complicity and indebtedness head on.

Here is what we heard read in Leviticus 25 this morning:

You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; . . . shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his or her own property, and each of you shall return to their family. That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap. . . . For it is a Jubilee; it shall be holy to you. . . . In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property. In the Year of Jubilee the land shall be returned to the person from whom it was bought.

How might we imagine a program of reconciliation and repair for the deep and lasting wrongs done to Indigenous communities of Minnesota, if we were to be inspired by this Biblical ideal of the Year of Jubilee? What would it mean to cancel debts and offer freedom and recompense not only to descendants of the enslaved, but also to those targeted for dispossession, leading to cultural and material genocide? What kind of money or other recompense would be involved, who would pay it, and how would it be distributed?

I don’t feel comfortable offering quick answers to these practical questions. I don’t believe that it’s my place as a privileged White person. For one thing, I who am heir to those pioneer settlers who founded our church on Dakota land, to be the one to make specific recommendations all on my own about how our society at large might redeem our debt of slavery and land theft. How would we, how would I, return each person to his or her own land and property? Instead of proposing my own solutions, right off the bat, instead I ask us to look to African American and Indigenous women and men to lead the way, to propose to us the most meaningful scenarios.

In that light, I find it quite pertinent what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his landmark article, “The Case for Reparations”:

The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter. Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

In the coming weeks, as Pastor Jane mentioned, our church’s racial justice working group will be helping us through a process of study, discernment, and frank conversations about potential paths for reconciliation, repair, and redemption. Please watch for articles in the Chimes, starting with an excellent treatment by historian Sarah Pawlicki. We plan to invite speakers and conversation partners from our neighboring Indigenous communities. Lenten small groups have been organized to read and reflect upon the prophetic voice of Wazayatawin, whose words I have quoted here today.

Our team has decided to begin this process today, through discussion among ourselves of some of these issues in breakout rooms after service. I hope and I pray that we will share our truths with each other with conviction and humility and open hearts, as we seek answers to the injustices that are still manifest right here among us. Amen.